BEIJING – Trying disgraced politician Bo Xilai's wife for murder was the easy part in cleaning up the political mess the couple has created for China's communist party leaders. Now comes the tough part: punishing Bo for abuse of power without further tarnishing the party's reputation.
Disciplining him quietly will save the party the embarrassment of washing its dirty linen in public but reinforce public perception that it goes soft on one of its own. Analysts say the leadership is therefore more likely to bite the bullet and try Bo in public in a nod to rule of law.
The first indication of this came when four Chongqing police officers were tried Friday for allegedly trying to help Bo's wife Gu Kailai cover up the murder of a British business associate, Neil Heywood, said Cheng Li, a China politics expert at the Brookings Institution in Washington D.C..
Chinese politics has a history of attacking subordinates to get at their superiors, and as part of the chain of command, the four can be directly linked to Bo, once the supreme communist party boss of Chongqing, a mega-city in China's east.
Li said the trial of the officers was a firm indication Bo would definitely face a judge, possibly in relation to the killing. "That's a statement that Bo Xilai will be charged," Li said.
Time is growing tight for an announcement, since the party may want to deal with the matter ahead of a national congress, likely in October that will usher in a once-in-a-decade transfer of power to a group of new leaders.
Since being axed as Chongqing's chief in March, Bo has also been suspended from the Politburo, which groups the party's top 25 members. Still, he continues to enjoy the rights and protections of party membership.
Bo's removal marked China's biggest upheaval in the leadership since the violent suppression of the Tiananmen Square pro-democracy protests in 1989 and only the third time since then that it had toppled a member of the Politburo, which sits just below the Politburo Standing Committee, China's top ruling body.
Bo, 64, was once seen as a candidate for one of the nine seats on the committee.
His world came crashing down when Chongqing police chief Wang Lijun, once an ally, sneaked into the U.S. consulate in the southwestern city of Chengdu in February and handed over information to the Americans about the Heywood's killing, which until then had been classified as accidental death due to excessive drinking.
That prompted Britain to ask China to reopen an investigation, which they did, resulting in Gu's arrest. She was tried Thursday, and it is all but certain that she will be convicted of murdering Heywood, as the state media has claimed that she has confessed in open court. International media was not allowed into the court room.
Wang is also under arrest and will face a trial in future.
Bo's name was not mentioned during the trial or in the subsequent reports in the state media, a sign the party wants to isolate Gu's case from any potential charges against her husband.
Bo is in the hands of the party's internal discipline and inspection commission, whose investigations of ranking party members can last several months. A commission announcement that it had concluded its probe would open the way for a trial, with charges possibly including obstructing police work, abuse of power, and corruption. Thus far, Bo has been accused only of grievous but unspecified rules violations.
Even if Bo is charged, a trial will not likely come before the 18th party congress is neatly wrapped up. But if he goes to trial, a conviction is virtually guaranteed.
Outcomes in such cases are almost always predetermined. While Chinese justice can seem to move slowly behind a veil of secrecy, events proceed rapidly once a decision has been reached.
"They still want to get him, and will, in party discipline procedures and possibly in court as well," said Perry Link, Princeton University emeritus professor of East Asian studies, who added he believed that a potential trial would come only much later.
Bo, the son of a Communist revolutionary veteran, was a rare Chinese populist politician, whose charisma and concern for social welfare such as affordable housing made him a favorite among the country's working-class and among some in the leadership.
But his maneuvering to reach the highest echelons of the Communist Party angered many in Beijing, as did his highly publicized campaigns to crush organized crime and promote Communist culture while trampling on civil liberties and reviving memories of the chaotic Cultural Revolution. Lawyers and government critics were also victims of the anti-crime campaign — in which torture was allegedly widely employed — and have slowly come forward seeking to have their verdicts overturned.
In a major speech in June, Bo's replacement, fellow Politburo member Zhang Dejiang, said the case "brought serious damage to the image of the country and the party."
The last time a case of this magnitude hit China's communist party was five years ago, when Shanghai's powerful party boss, Chen Liangyu was removed and sentenced to 18 years for corruption. Bo, however, boasts a far higher profile and more extensive national power base, and unlike Chen's carefully orchestrated takedown, his case has been much messier and uncertain.
Associated Press writer Didi Tang in Beijing contributed to this report.